I hate the taste of blood. It’s a testament to the fact that I was still working in a suck-ass profession. My jaw ached like a mother from all the punches and kicks I had taken. It was a damn miracle my entire head hadn’t been shattered into a million pieces. It just felt as if it had been, right now. But the pain from my sore head was nothing compared to what was being inflicted on me now as the man standing over me poked my chest.
“For Christ’s sake, Mike, stop poking me.”
He removed his hands from my chest. “Luke, you have three broken ribs. You should praise yourself lucky that you are still alive.” He groaned and shook his head. Mike, “The Fixer,” Hammond had been salvaging my body after my fights for years. “I keep stitching you up and you keep getting hurt. You know living this way is a one way ticket to hell, right?”
I snorted. “We are all on a God damn one way ticket, Mike. The only question is when do we get off? Just stitch me up, will you? I can’t stand the smell of this shithole locker room.”
Before Mike could finish patching me up and before I could get my ass off his table, someone kicked open the door. It swung wide and within seconds a very angry and very contorted face loomed over mine.
“What the fuck was that out there, Luke. I thought I told you to take a dive tonight. You just cost me fucking two-hundred and fifty thousand, you punk ass son of a bitch. I ought to crush your balls myself right now. ”
“Go fuck yourself, Bruno.” I glared at him and spit on the ground. Nobody else dared talk to him like that. They wouldn’t live to see the next day.
“Don’t you forget who you’re talking to, buddy. I’m the one who calls the shots around here. I’m the one who tells assholes like you what to do in this business. The underground fight circuit is your life and bread, and I own your sorry ass, Renegade. Don’t you forget it,” he shouted in my face, red veins popping out of his neck. He paced a few steps, one hand shoved in his pant pocket and the other one frantically tugging loose his tie. With his gray suit jacket flying open, he leaned in, still shouting, “You should’ve taken that dive, damn it!”
“I freaking tried,” I barked back. Bruno Costello was a pit-bull off the chain and not the kind of man anyone dared to cross, but what he had asked me to do tonight was fucking crazy.
“Some fight premotor you are. You should’ve told the other guy about the plan; he almost killed me out there!” My blood was boiling and my voice went up a decibel with each word. I knew I was treading a fine line with Bruno but I was much younger and stronger than him. Even in my condition right now, I knew if those balled up fists at his side came my way, I could take him. “I had to fight back or I would’ve never been able to walk, much less fight again.”
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Bruno hammered his fist into the locker with each word then pointed a fat finger in my face “You better make this up to me, Luke. You owe me. This was a quarter of a million dollars.”
Bruno’s face was blood red and the veins of his temples popped out of his receding hairline. Oh, I was fucked so bad.
“It’s not my damn fault. What was I supposed to do?”
“Keep your end of the deal.” He said between gritted teeth.
“Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think. You have to fix this.”
I shrugged and winced in pain as I tried to shake my head in disbelief.
He grabbed my jaw with his claw of a hand almost spitting in my face, “I want you to get my money back and I always get what I want.”
“How the hell am I supposed to do that?” I spat back
“I don’t give two fucks how you do it. Steal it back, for Christ’s sake!” He screamed into my train wreck of a face. His yelling wasn’t helping calm the sledge hammer of a headache I had pounding out what was left of my brains.
Bruno pulled back and opened his coat jacket to reach for something in the inside pocket. I thought I was toast, bloody, fucking toast. When he pulled out a white handkerchief and wiped his sweaty head with it, my shoulders relaxed. I supposed Bruno’s blood pressure was sky high by now, as he paced the floor and spoke.
“If I know Franco, that God damn son of a bitch bookie, he’s on his way to bang out some young pussy and celebrate his two-hundred and fifty thousand dollar win. Find him and lighten the fucking load in his pocket.”
Was he serious? I wanted to bitch slap that fat fucker and watch him stroke out all over the floor. From the looks of him, he was only a few short artery clogging salami sandwiches away from a heart attack anyway. It wouldn’t take much to send him into cardiac arrest right now. “Look…Mr. Costello, I’m a fighter, not a damn thief. I can’t just steal the money from the guy.”
He leaned over, his head was close to my face and I could smell the stench of whiskey and stale cigar smoke on his breath. Fresh beads of sweat had erupted along his brow and when he spoke into my ear in a whisper his voice was icy cold. “You better rethink that notion right now, or else our special friendship could see a very quick end…especially for you, champ.”
He stood up, pushed his tie back up and strode out of the room.
This night had just gone from crap to freaking shit. My options were slim to none and things were leaning heavily towards the ‘none’ side. I had no other choice; I would have to get the money back.
Mike had floated to the corner of the room like he had been blown there like a balloon when Bruno stormed in. He knew his place in this organization and knew when to make himself scares. “Mike, you know Franco Gianni, the bookie, somewhat, right? Do you know where he usually hangs out after a big win?”
He sighed. “Luke, you know I love you like my little brother but I can’t get involved, man. I got a wife and kids and these guys are not kidding around. I value my life too much.”
“I know, Mike. I’m sorry but if I don’t get that money back, you know what he’ll do. I mean, if he does something to me, you wouldn’t be able to live with that, would you? We’re practically family, right? I’d do the same for you, man.” I looked straight into his eyes.
He threw his hands into the air, knowing it was a losing battle. “Okay, I heard he sometimes likes to party with the ladies around Frampton Street, but don’t let anyone know I told you, got it?”
“My lips are sealed, Mike. Thanks buddy, I owe you one.” I groaned and with restricted motion, slipped off the table, giving Mike a pat on the shoulder as I went. The slightest movement hurt like hell, but I had gotten the information that I needed. How the fuck did I get myself into this predicament? I’m not a damn thief, or one of the cartel’s idiot goons that roughs up guys. Whatever. I would need to get to Franco’s little private party before its happy ending. I knew exactly where he would be tonight and as much as I hated this dirty deed, it had to be done.
Earlier that same evening.
“I can’t believe I let you two talk me into this.” My words were lost in the swell of cheering voices although I shouted them in the direction of my two girlfriends, Joey and Krissy. My breath withered as it came out of me. I realized even my loudest voice was no competition for this cacophony of sound. And my timing was off. I turned to talk right when the brute in the cage landed a savage kick, directly on the side of his opponent’s bloody face, sending him straight to the canvas. I wondered for a moment if the beast would leave a blood spatter trail of footprints all over the white canvas fighting ring after putting his foot into the guy’s crimson stained cheek. It didn’t end there and I didn’t know if I had the stomach to keep watching.
The fighter in the red shorts pummeled his opponent with brutal jabs and blows and seized upon him in a flash, pinning the guy to the deck, hammering explosive fists repeatedly in his face while pinning him down with his legs. I was no expert at fights but it sure as hell seemed like the brute had an unfair advantage over his opponent.
The referee didn’t intervene; it appeared he was allowing this mayhem to happen. There was a fine line in these kinds of fights between the sport and just plain unrestrained evil, or so it seemed to me. I had never been to this kind of an event and I was astounded by what I saw. But what looked like violence to me apparently was not to everybody else surrounding me. I looked at Joey for understanding. Her eyes were focused on the fighters and the expression on her face seemed to be a mixture of enjoyment and amusement. I jerked on Joey’s arm and yelled, “He’s killing him! Doesn’t anybody care? Do they let this kind of thing just happen?”
Once again, the deafening roar swept my words and my concerns away. Joey laughed and her long dark pony tail bobbed. She cheered louder, practically jumping up and down as she gave me a playful shove off with a look on her face like I was the crazy one in the scenario unfolding in front of us. It sure looked like a man was getting killed in public, in front of hundreds of onlookers and no one seemed to care. Was this blistering violence supposed to be entertainment for people? The look of pleasure on my friend’s face confirmed my suspicions.
What was I thinking coming here to witness this barbaric display of aggression? I wasn’t cut out for this type of sport, if you can call it a sport. I took it to heart. The moment Joey had pleaded with me to escort her and Krissy to an underground cage fight in an undisclosed factory building the Bronx, I should have realized it was something that would make me sick to my stomach. And I was literally sick… about to throw up on the spot. The sight of blood always did that to me. And all this so Joey could see some guy again, one she had met last weekend...Jimmy something. Apparently he works for one of the fight promoters. He must be pretty high up because he managed to get the three of us on the list at the door. Joey was going to owe me a whole dozen of Krispy Kreme donuts for this one.
But I always caved for my friends, Joey and Krissy. They were the kind of friends a girl like me could just dream of getting. Popular and well-liked by everybody. Joey was the down to earth and level headed girl. Krissy was sweet as pie and the kind of person who wanted to take in every stray cat she found wandering the back alleys. However, their lot in life was a more financially stable one than mine as they came from families with more money than anybody could ever count. I, on the other hand, was raised by my grandmother, but not because of any noble reason, like my parents died in a tragic accident while saving the lives of babies in a third world country. No, I was raised by my Grammy, who spent most of her life cleaning hotel rooms for a living, because the bottle was more important to my mother than I was. But it pushed me to overcome the challenges, study hard, receive a scholarship and go to college. Make Grammy proud of me.
Unable to watch the fight my gaze flickered around the large hall. The dank gray walls of this place opened into high ceilings that looked like the gaping jaws of a whale ready to swallow us all whole. The establishment looked more like an illegitimate business than a sports facility and not to mention that it was located in a shady and clandestine part of town. The building in which I stood, next to my hyperventilating and screaming friends, was a converted factory building. It was packed with at least five hundred cheering, blood thirsty fans, eager to see the bright red proof of dominance gush from an eye or a nose, standing on metal bleachers that surrounded a fighting cage set up in the center of the place.
The crowd of spectators was made up of a contrast of types, however most of them were men. The young ones clustered in groups, buddies, peacocking, and jeering at the fighters with spit and vigor, like they could do a better job if only the referee would let them into the cage. The older men bellowed profanities confident that the adrenaline in their system could bring back the vitality of youth. Even they imagined they could knock a guy out with one punch, if only they could be let into the cage. But much to my surprise, as I swiveled my head to scan the room for an exit, there was a fair amount of women in the mix. Young women, young pretty girls, with long flowing hair and pouty red lips, who came to lust after the muscular fighters in the ring. Maybe I just didn’t get this hot fighter guy appeal. But then, I’ve always felt I was not the typical girl. Unlike them, I didn’t consider myself the type to be easily swayed by a strong jaw and six-pack abs. I needed more from a guy than just a hard body and tattoos.
I shook my head as I looked at all the people around me, consumed with watching the violence before their eyes, enthralled with the blood being spattered and smeared all over the cage. Blood seems to hold a bizarre and intriguing fascination for them. A kind of mysterious allure to seeing bodily fluids come oozing out of a human body, as if seeing it is proof that we are alive. Or maybe it’s proof that there’s truth in the saying that we’re all the same on the inside. We can look at it and realize that, despite the masks we wear on the outside, we all bleed the same blood.
The pressure in my bladder was signaling me to find the exit and on top of that, my stomach couldn’t take much more of this glorified torture. I tugged on Joey’s elbow and leaned into her ear and shouted. “Going to the restroom.”
I stood up and slung my purse over my shoulder. Krissy caught my movement out of the corner of her eye and leaned forward to look over at me. Her long red curls fell forward with her and she swept it all to one side as she shouted, “Dani, where are you going?” I mouthed the words, “Gotta pee,” using ridiculous hand gestures like I was a French mime, pointing in all directions to a door, wherever that was.
I finally made my way through the sweaty audience to the hallway where I turned my head in a 180 sweep to spot a restroom sign. No sooner had I found it, and was about to yank on the door knob, when a robust woman burst through the door, fanning her face with a tissue and nearly tripped over me. I caught the door with one hand and let her pass in front of me.
“You don’t want to go in there, hon, it’s totally flooded.”
I pushed the door open to take a peek inside but the putrid smell hit me straight on. The odor was so strong I think my nose hairs got singed. I gagged and reeled backward in disgust.
I quickly let the door swing shut and strode off to find another option, my bulging bladder now screaming at me to hurry up. The only other door in the converted lobby area looked like a good choice. It must lead backstage into the locker rooms. I was pretty sure there would be another restroom inside but the entrance was being guarded by a not so friendly looking bouncer the size of Mt. Rushmore.
Shit, I really need to pee now.
Lady Luck smiled on me and the bouncer’s attention was drawn by an argument between two extremely drunk tatted up dudes near the front entrance. It was just the opening I needed to sneak backstage.
Once through the door, I found myself in a narrow empty hallway, lit by a single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. I spotted a restroom at the other end. From my vantage point I noticed an open doorway I had to pass to get to my destination. Walking softly, I crept down the dimly lit hall. As I approached the threshold of the doorway I could see straight into a locker room. I intended to slip past the opening as quickly as possible but once there, I heard panting noises coming from inside. Curiosity got the best of me and I had to take a closer look.
I froze, mesmerized by what I saw and I lingered just long enough to see a muscular man, a fighter no doubt, lying almost naked on a massage table. An attractive Asian woman dressed in all white was intently focused on kneading the muscles of his right shoulder. She stood with her back to me working her small hands over the tan skin of his well-defined upper back and shoulder muscles. As she worked she stepped aside giving me a better view of his magnificent upper torso, the part not draped with a white towel. Her hands trailed along his right shoulder and moved down his back unveiling a rather unusual large tribal tattoo with two dragon heads. The two dragons covering the upper back swirled in opposite directions, like a Yin Yang symbol. My pulse quickened and an adrenaline rush surged all the way down to my toes. I wanted to stay here and enjoy the view of his body, in spite of the fact that I could get caught. That was strange. I never allowed myself this kind of reaction to hot guys. I usually kept my emotions in check. I mean, I can appreciate a hard body as much as the next girl but in my experience, these types were pretty much all brawn and no brains. I was never going to allow myself to end up like my mom. Destroyed and abused, driven to alcoholism, just because she fell for some hot guy who later dumped her like she was a piece of trash. No way. Besides, I hadn’t been struggling to pay for years of college just to hook up with another good looking playboy. I knew it was best not to get all giggly over eye-candy like the fifty-million screaming women out front. That would get me nowhere. Yet, here I found myself drooling over some muscular back and a tat.
I slapped my hand to my forehead, “Snap out of it, Dani,” and hurried past the doorway towards the restroom. Thank God he had his face turned away from the door. I didn’t need any more unsolicited distractions right now that my body was reacting like a giddy school girl. Good thing I only saw the back of his head and…oh God, why was I drooling over him?
After finishing my business, I exited the restroom feeling much better. I abruptly came face to face with the Asian woman who had been giving the tattooed fighter a massage. She raked me up and down with a suspicious glare. “You know you can’t be backstage without your pass showing at all times. I don’t remember seeing you here before. Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m Lola…Frank’s new assistant. Didn’t you hear? First night on the job. Sorry, I left my badge in the office. Gotta run before he starts yelling at me for slacking, but nice meeting you.”
Before she could start asking questions about who the hell my imaginary boss Frank was, I hightailed it out of the backstage area into the safety of the roaring fans of the MMA.
I blended into a small group of rowdy spectators passing by and slipped back inside the arena, happy to have avoided a nasty situation with the rugged bouncer. He was nowhere to be seen. I found my breath as I leaned against the wall in the voluminous main room.
My cell phone buzzed in my jeans’ pocket. I fished it out and peered at the screen. I expected it to be Krissy, wondering what took me so long.
The screen displayed the name “Jerry Stein”. Why the heck was Jerry calling me on a Friday night? He was the front desk manager at the Greymore Hotel where I worked three nights a week, usually Monday to Wednesday, never Fridays. The skin prickled on the back of my neck.
“Yea Jerry, what’s up?”
“Oh, thank God I caught you, Dani. I have a situation and need you to come to work and cover the Front Desk ASAP. Kim just called; she had an accident and can’t make it. You have to fill in. Can you be here in an hour?”
Right! Accident my ass, like the only accident happening to Kim was Jerry falling and “accidentally” landing with his dick into her. The two of them were fucking and Kim now had Jerry wrapped around her little finger, a trapped married man.
“Sorry Jerry. Can’t make it. I’m at a party at the other end of town.” I held the phone up in the air so it would capture the explosive roar from the crowd.
“Listen, Dani.” The phone distorted as his voice rose in a desperate pitch. “You have to come. I’ll make sure you get paid double-time for tonight.”
I pressed my lips into a hard straight line. I didn’t want to go into work on a Friday night, but I needed the money badly.
“Okay, I’ll be there but you owe me big time, Jerry, especially since it is Friday night. This isn’t the first time I’ve jumped when you were in a bind.” I shoved my hand through my long black hair and scanned the place for the exit doors to the outside. “I need to call a cab to get out of here. I’m somewhere in The Bronx. I’m not walking outside alone”
“Yeah , yeah, yeah. Watch your attitude. I’m still your boss, you know… The Bronx? What the hell are you doing there?”
“That’s really none of your business, Jerry. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I ended the call without a goodbye and shoved the phone in my purse, then headed toward Joey and Krissy to let them know I was leaving.
Part of me was glad to get out of this testosterone palace for the night. It was doing unexpected things to my body, churning up hormones I thought I had under control. Another part of me wanted to stay and get a closer look at that hot body I had just seen. He was about to fight next I was sure of. But I couldn’t afford to turn down an extra three-hundred dollars. I dialed the number I had stored in my phone for the cab company. They were not happy about picking me up at this location but after some serious pleading, I was told it would take fifteen minutes for the cab to arrive.
I went to say goodbye to Joey and Krissy and bee-lined it toward the front exit where I waited for the cab. As soon as I heard the familiar sound of a cab horn blaring, I kicked the door open and a blast of the cold night air hit my face as I stepped onto the gum stained sidewalk. Minutes later, safe in the backseat of the cab, I was on my way to the Greymore Hotel.
Hope you enjoyed the preview. Pure Temptation will be available Friday the 13th of December.